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October 04, 2012 10:12 AM The Debate: What Happened?

By Seth Masket

I watched the debate from inside the media filing room in the Ritchie Center. You can see my perspective at left, which pretty much encapsulates my thoughts on the debate — it was all about Romney. It was hard not to see this as a very one-sided debate, with Romney proving very assertive, confident, and in-command, and Obama really appearing not those things.

I think there were a number of reasons for this. First was the point James Fallows nicely made in his article “Slugfest” and Nate Silver backed up yesterday: first debates usually favor the challenger because they challenger has had a lot of recent debating experience. In Romney’s case, he just came off a spring in which he faced 20 party debates, most of which centered on all the other candidates trying to trip him up. Obama, conversely, hasn’t done this in four years; his recent public appearances have mainly involved prepared speeches and town hall meetings, not this sort of policy-rich exchange.

The second reason is that to the extent Obama prepped for this debate, he prepped to debate someone else other than who showed up. The awkward Randian conservative, so uncomfortable in his own ideological skin, had morphed, incredibly rapidly, into a pragmatic, confident moderate. Jim Tankersly (via Wonkblog) summed it up nicely:

Apparently Mitt Romney likes government regulation, loves Medicare the way it is, agrees fairly regularly with President Obama, and does not, in fact, want to cut taxes very much. Those are gross simplifications of Romney’s economic platform, and ones very much at odds with the anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-entitlement-reform campaign the former Massachusetts governor has waged for more than a year.

I was really struggling with this. I couldn’t tell whether Romney had completely abandoned his old positions on taxes and regulations or whether he was just casting those positions in a new light. Regardless, the pivot to the center that had been conspicuously absent from Romney’s campaign this year finally happened, in the space of 90 minutes. Now, in the short run, this presents an advantage — Romney’s new stances were obviously much more popular than his old ones, and the president had difficulty critiquing views that were so similar to his own. But I’m wondering about the costs of this pivot: a) Does he alienate some conservative activists, who have long worried about his ideological bona fides? b) Does this reinforce his image as a flip-flopper? Possible answers: a) Conservative activists will probably suck it up and be grateful for a nominee who could stick it to the president in a debate. b) There was plenty of flip-flopper material there for Obama to exploit, but he largely didn’t, although I’m sure his surrogates will be all over that for the remainder of the week.

Well, that’s what I saw. The other great flip-flop of the night, which most of you probably didn’t see, came from Denver’s weather. The temperature dropped from around 80F in the mid-afternoon to the 30s after the debate, and we’ve got snow on the way. Yes, Colorado’s weather transformed itself almost as quickly as Romney did.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.
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Comments

  • N Bates on October 04, 2012 1:56 PM:

    My take on the debate, just on principle aside from policy arguments in the abstract: Mr. Romney bully-shitted his way through this "debate" to look like he "won" as mostly agreed by an incompetent, horse-racey commentariat that has no idea what a real debate is, moderated by real debate referees (like, uh, in High Schools across the nation.) In such real debates, if you say "doing A will lead to B", you have to tell us *why we should believe you.* R-money, of course, did not. Can you imagine how an analogous debate between scientists over particle physics would have been graded, instead?

    Note also, the false background presumption that this is all a referendum on Obama. No, it isn't, no matter how many Villagers say so. We have a Congress (very obstructionist), State governments (many cutting funds, many controlled by Republicans), private companies (many trimming, outsourcing, just sucking up more profit as the stock market shows), the rest of the world, extraneous factors like weather events, etc.

    And, to reward bluster means that a decent, mild-mannered person - however brilliant, talented, caring, honest, etc - could not become President of the United States of America. The way Romney bullied and talked over pitiful old "Moderator" Jim Lehrer was disgraceful. Nevertheless, President Obama *must* get his game together and appear tougher yet remain Presidential - something Mr. Romney surely is not.

    BTW some commentator speculated, Obama may have been a bit fatigued from lower oxygen levels in Denver - after all, 5000 feet altitude does make a difference, and some are more susceptible than others.

  • N Bates on October 04, 2012 5:57 PM:

    I see a parallel to a previous case: Like Gore in 2000, Obama actually did try to refute the opponent's misleading claims. He did so about Romney's tax-cut?-plan, saying it would be a five or so trillion tax cut - and being piled on because he *did* keep repeating that, even as supposed "allies" pillory Obama for "not showing up" etc. Similar story re the 716 billion of Medicaid: Obama *did* explain that was about reducing waste and paying providers less, rather than a cut to the recipients (but he could have noted it's really only a relative reduction anyway.) Folks, complaining about Obama: you can't have it both ways. Obama could have done better, but the real scandal is that a rude, bullying upper-class frat boy (even worse than the Bush kind IMHO) got away with that and massive dishonesty because the commentariat failed their duties, and because so many swing voters are easy prey for that very same kind of superficially appearance of zing. If Obama loses, I personally will blame the ones slashing him now for the debate, as much as I will the pious purists who stay home or vote alternative.


  • Varecia on October 04, 2012 11:37 PM:

    "...Nevertheless, President Obama *must* get his game together and appear tougher yet remain Presidential..."

    It's more important to appear tougher, as that will automatically translate into 'Presidential' in most people's minds. If he was holding back out some fear of appearing some potentially negative way, forget it! To paraphrase a line from West Wing, if they think that, they'll think it, so he might as well take down some bodies in the process.

  • N.Wells on October 05, 2012 2:54 AM:

    While watching the debate, I thought Obama did okay, but was too low-key and let far too many easy counterattacks pass unmentioned, while Romney clearly looked and sounded better (as long as you didn't actually try to follow the specifics of all his lies and BS). Usually I'm the one yelling at the TV in my family and my wife is yelling at me for yelling at the TV, but last night my wife was doing all the yelling (at Romney), although in the morning she was was angry and disappointed at Obama for not doing better. Unfortunately, I expect her response will be the standard perception, as I'm usually immersed in the details, while she does much better at how people are coming across emotionally.

    I have no idea why Obama wasn't "on" last night, but it certainly wasn't intelligent strategy or some sort of clever long game, and it was unfortunate that he missed the opportunity to drive a stake through Romney and finish him off. My guess is that he just had a bad day for some reason. However, the severity of the bitching and moaning by democrats is uncalled for. Obama has accomplished a lot: the recession could have been far worse, he got us past the worst possible results of Republican intransigence, he got a form of health care passed, he saved the auto industry and decimated Al Qaida, so he still looks really good relative to Romney. We've also seen him give great speeches and give masterful off the cuff responses to republicans and reporters, so we know what he can do.

    My response was to go out and get a yard sign and some bumper stickers and put some money in the jar at the local campaign office and I started some letters to newspapers bitching about all Romney's lying. All that feels pretty damn good, so I'd recommend it for others.

  • JohnB. on October 05, 2012 9:16 AM:

    I am as guilty as anyone who isn't a member of the MSM, but it does occur to me that liberal supporters of Obama are very different from right-wing supporters of just about anyone with a body temperature above 80 degrees. Right-wingers hit the blogs and offer quotes to everyone within earshot backing up their kind and supporting whatever lies are being uttered. Liberals tend to be critical of their own under all but the most ideal circumstances, and thus inadvertently embolden the MSM.

    Media writers and analysts do pay attention to what they conceive to be the "people's" reactions. Their basic instinct is to swim -- and write -- in the mainstream, not some deserted backwater. So, just imagine how different the post-debate media coverage would have been if everyone on the left had chimed in with effusive praise and (admittedly fulsome) reviews of the "great" job Obama did in the debate.

    In the debased political culture we are living in, lies and propaganda influence the media, the media influences the people, the people swallow the lies. Liberals pride themselves on their fealty to "truth." Right-wingers like to think they can make their own truth.

    Could they be right?